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First human embryonic stem cell trial

Fergus Walsh | 19:53 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

Let me give you two scenarios. First the wildly optimistic: that thirty years from now we will look back on today as one of the most significant in the history of modern medicine; the day everything began to change. The second is pessimistic: that in the near future we will see that embryonic stem cells did not live up to the hype, dashing the hopes of patients.

The truth is no-one can be sure which of the above will come true, or something more prosaic but still useful in terms of tackling disease.

So much has been written about embryonic stem cells that it seems hard to fathom that the first officially approved human trial is only now underway. To supporters they represent the best hope for repairing organs and curing disease.

The dream is that - many years from now - you will be able to use stem cells to repair a damaged heart, cure diabetes and restore function to patients with spinal cord injury.

We know that adult stem cells work, for example bone marrow transplantation. There have been other transplant techniques using adult stem cells.

But until now, human embryonic stem cells had never been injected into a patient - at least not in a licensed trial.

Now, Geron, a biotech firm in California has announced that it has begun a safety trial where embryonic stem cells will be injected into half a dozed patients who recently suffered spinal cord injuries. The first patient, whose details have not been released, has already had the treatment. The amount of cells injected will have been tiny because this "first in man" trial is simply there to test safety. Only if no harm is done will increasingly bigger doses be given, and only then will scientists know whether it can help restore some function.

In animal trials, paralysed rats did regain movement. But, as many trials have shown in the past, that does not assure success in humans.

Not even the most enthusiastic supporters of this research are suggesting that paralysed patients will be walking again as a result of this study. But even a minor improvement in function would be of huge benefit.

Professor Chris Mason from University College London said this is an exciting moment: "It's important because these are embryonic stem cells - the most potent we have available for therapy. They can make all the 200 cell types in the body and they can make them in quantity. If this therapy is successful, and that might take five to ten years, then we will be able to manufacture it in the scale we need."

The trial will spark controversy in the United States. Critics argue that it is wrong to use cells derived from human embryos because they would have been destroyed in the process, when they are still smaller than a pinhead. In one of his first actions as President, Barack Obama lifted many restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research when he came to office last year. There is currently a legal dispute over federal funding which is going through the US Court of Appeal.


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  • 1. At 9:16pm on 11 Oct 2010, Grey Animal wrote:

    "The trial will spark controversy in the United States."

    But what doesn't?

    The USA can legislate itself back into a state of theocratic ignorance if its people wish, but science happens world-wide. We don't need to worry about what the Americans think.

    As for scenarios: I think that a third is more likely. We won't find out how to do everything that everyone wishes for, but there will be some remarkable developments - often in areas that we didn't expect them. That's how science normally proceeds.

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  • 2. At 07:14am on 12 Oct 2010, Apolloin wrote:

    We won't know if we don't do the research - and even if it doesn't lead to a cure for Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Altzheimers, Paralysis and Obesity it'll open new doors for further research.

    As for the controversy - I'm all for ethical standards in research, but not for allowing religion to keep Science blind in one eye to service ignorance and outdated tribal taboos.

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  • 3. At 1:29pm on 12 Oct 2010, JJJJJJJJJ wrote:

    @1 "The USA can legislate itself back into a state of theocratic ignorance if its people wish"

    @2 "I'm all for ethical standards in research, but not for allowing religion to keep Science blind in one eye to service ignorance and outdated tribal taboos"

    ... exactly the type of 'aggressive secularism' I'd expect from the average BBC blog contributor... Yawn! To be sure, we're all happy about scientific progress and the benefits medical science has bought to society but this is very controversial research. The issue of creating life just to harvest cells raises a lot of ethical questions and people have the right to object.

    I'm tired of the widely circulated myth that American opposition to this type of research is 'backward religious thinking'. Contemporary science doesn't have all the answers and it shouldn't pretend to (or be so rude to those who see it differently - yeah - I'm talking to you 1&2 above!). For me life is sacred - there are limits to how we should intervene - it's a sensible debate.

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  • 4. At 3:36pm on 12 Oct 2010, Grey Animal wrote:

    Dear One_show_skeptic,

    Religion doesn't have a monopoly on ethics, any more than science claims to answer all questions. But if American opposition isn't driven by what you yourself called 'backward religious thinking', then what does drive it? Surely you can't be asserting that the denizens of the USA are somehow ethically superior to everyone else?

    What is beyond a doubt evident, and why I believe that the USA shouldn't be seen as typical of humanity's opinions, is that the population of the USA is, frankly, scientifically ignorant.

    In 2005: "American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century." (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/science/30profile.html)

    In 2010: "45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, "The universe began with a big explosion," with which only 33% of Americans agreed. " (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/04/evolution-big-bang-polls-omitted.html)

    I think that the numbers speak for themselves. American opinion is not representative of the rest of the civilised world.

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  • 5. At 3:39pm on 12 Oct 2010, Kathy Noon wrote:

    There are a lot of ignorant people in the US but you have to know that a lot of the negativity is funded by "private interests" and the average Joe in America is quite caring. What I don't get is why people here would oppose using the umbilical cord cells in research when they are often thrown in the garbage in American hospitals.

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  • 6. At 4:50pm on 12 Oct 2010, JJJJJJJJJ wrote:

    @4 Grey Animal

    As I alluded to before, what drives American opposition to some types of stem cell research is the faith-based view that life is sacred. The US is a democracy and the people's views are reflected in political decisions (such as what research gets funded).

    You seem unhappy with a society which doesn't universally except theories about the common descent of Man and whatever else is 'correct' according to your secular world view. I'd like to point out we have a great deal of scientific illiteracy here in the UK too - your sources prove nothing. And, quite humorously IMO, you consider American opinions 'unrepresentative of the civilised world'. However, to state the obvious, a huge amount of scientific research comes out of the US and as a society they have the right to decide what they consider ethical.

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  • 7. At 7:50pm on 12 Oct 2010, mscracker wrote:

    Well, as for "tribal taboos" mentioned by one poster above, these often included prohibitions against incest & cannabilism. I think embryonic stem cell use is medical cannabilism.
    Life is sacred, even some atheists agree on that.Whether you are taking lives the size of a "pinhead" or taking vital organs from prisoners or others who can't give consent, you are destroying human life. If it wasn't human life we wouldn't be having the discussion.The victims are simply human beings at different stages of development being offered up to consumers.
    Adult stem cell research is an ethical option.

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  • 8. At 01:49am on 13 Oct 2010, TheQuadraticsAreComing wrote:

    @One_show_sceptic
    @mscracker

    As a US citizen, I can attest to the fact that religion continues to directly impede scientific education, progress, and research.

    Faith does not belong in, or in front of, scientific education, progress, or research, just as science does not attempt to influence religious matters.

    As Kathy has said, using umbilical cords that would otherwise be considered medical waste should not raise an ethical issue, because aborted fetuses and umbilical cords will never become human beings. The "victims" are already dying cells. Scientists are not suggesting people procreate simply to grow organs.

    Thank you, Barack.

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  • 9. At 2:34pm on 13 Oct 2010, mscracker wrote:

    Ethics & human rights, not religion, per say, are the issues.
    The use of umbilical cord blood is ethical, no life has been destroyed.Ditto for adult stem cell research.
    Creating human life in order to destroy it for consumption is another matter entirely, and is at the heart of the controversy.
    Thankfully, ethics often impedes questionable medical research,both in the States & elsewhere.

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  • 10. At 11:07pm on 14 Oct 2010, mjraisingdaroof wrote:

    Just for the sake of informing, embryos are not created in the UK or USA solely for the purposes of acquiring embryonic stem cells. The embryos used are the ones that are left after a couple has completed all the cycles of IVF that they want and would otherwise be incinerated as medical waste. No ethics board in the UK that I am aware of would aprove the creation of viable human embryos solely for research purposes. I doubt that the US would be different in this respect but that is just my opinion not validatd research. Many of the people who disapprove of this use of the waste embryos also disapprove of IVF but that is another debate entirely.

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  • 11. At 4:39pm on 15 Oct 2010, mscracker wrote:

    Good point re the use & subsequent destruction of human embryos created for IVF. Quite true.However, embryonic stem cells created in "therapeutic" cloning are created solely for consumption.
    Here's some info found at: Genome.gov
    "In the 1998 reports, ES cells were derived from in vitro embryos six to seven days old destined to be discarded by couples undergoing infertility treatments, and embryonic germ (EG) cells were obtained from cadaveric fetal tissue following elective abortion. A third report, appearing in the New York Times, claimed that a Massachusetts biotechnology company had fused a human cell with an enucleated cow egg, creating a hybrid clone that failed to progress beyond an early stage of development. This announcement served as a reminder that ES cells also could be derived from embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning. In fact, several scientists believed that deriving ES cells in this manner is the most promising approach to developing treatments because the condition of in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos stored over time is questionable and this type of cloning could overcome graft-host responses if resulting therapies were developed from the recipient's own DNA."Kathi E. Hanna, M.S., Ph.D., Science and Health Policy Consultant-The National Human Genome Research Institute (USA)

    If you check at websites for research in diabetes & other illnesses you find overwhelming support for therapeutic cloning.
    O brave new world....

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  • 12. At 6:59pm on 15 Oct 2010, mjraisingdaroof wrote:

    It is true that there are 'embryos' created using somatic cell nuclear transfer, (SCNF) a.k.a. therapeutic cloning. Though it is of note the manner by which these provide us with stem cells is very distinct from those created during IVF, which are viable for procreation. For those that dont know, SNCF involves taking the genetic material from a adult cell, a skin cell for example, and putting it inside a donated egg cell that has had its genetic material removed and which is then stimulated to divide to make more cells. Whilst this raises some other arguments from those completely against SNCF, the concept of a human life or soul being created by the merging of sperm and egg is not applicable here. This would appear like a less morally objectionable manner to create embryonic stem cells but in purely pragmatic terms, there are more waste embryos left after IVF than there are oocytes donated for research.

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  • 13. At 9:11pm on 15 Oct 2010, mscracker wrote:

    I'm no expert on the creation of souls occuring during therapeutic cloning, however here's something from the U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops who seem to view a cloned embryo is a human life indeed:

    "Now that the discussion has turned to humans, political spokespersons for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have decided to engage in a curious avoidance of the fact that somatic cell nuclear transfer using a human nucleus would produce a human embryo. There seem to be two reasons for this:


    some spokespersons maintain -- contrary to scientific evidence, the findings of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel, and current federal law on embryo research -- that no human embryos should be called "embryos" for the first two weeks of existence.

    because cloned embryos are seen as such useful research material for destructive experiments, current restrictions on embryo research etc. must be evaded by denying that an embryo produced by cloning deserves the name.
    Thus euphemisms and misleading or inaccurate terms ("totipotent cell," "clump of embryonic cells," "unfertilized oocyte," etc.) have entered the political discussion. They are employed to conceal the fact that researchers want to be allowed to use cloning to produce and destroy human embryos. Biotechnology groups claim to oppose the cloning of "human beings" or "persons" -- but they reserve the right to conduct cloning experiments on human embryos and fetuses, so long as none is allowed to survive to live birth. " From: Does Human Cloning Produce An Embryo? -USCCB-ProLife Activities

    Obviously the quotes above are reflecting a religiously based view but my guess is others-religious or non-may be in agreement.Again, it's a question of ethics & human rights-not exclusively a religious matter.

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